Racial Inequity in Smart City Developmentvergeadmin
In our previous commentary, Verge Founders Jonathan Rhodes and Christopher Wolff talked about going through a firestorm of controversy over their work in Smart Cities. After developing the first sustainable Smart City plan, which has become the model for cities nationwide, our founders faced the full force of incumbents and politicians working to kill competition and protect their interests. Now that the false allegations have been cleared, Verge is excited to get back to work. But before we do, let’s look at how we got here, and where we’re going next.
Part I: RACE, REDLINES AND THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
In the grip of a global pandemic, we suddenly found ourselves in a world where access to connectivity could mean the difference between life and death. However, as many embraced this new world of Zoom school, remote work and, thankfully, equity for essential workers, others found themselves disconnected by old world racist policies. The pandemic exposed a “digital divide” between the vast majority of affluent White communities with access to high speed internet, and communities of color that lack access to reliable, affordable broadband. Verge Internet was founded by Jonathan Rhodes and Christopher Wolff in New Orleans to help bridge the divide nationally and serves as a leader in smart city and networking technology to provide Internet for All and support the Internet of Everything.
Today’s “digital divide” is not just analogous to the discriminatory housing policies of the past referred to as “redlining”, it is a direct result of those racist practices. Redlining started in the 1930s, when racially motivated banks sought to draw black neighborhoods out of home ownership opportunities. Recent research out of the University of Florida and published by Brown University has confirmed the link between racist housing policies of the past, and digital equity today. Now recognized as an overt and harmful practice of racial discrimination, redlining in housing is illegal and has created an unjust gap in generational wealth for millions of black families.
However, nearly 100 years later, we still find ourselves with a new incarnation of an old, racist practice. The team at Verge Internet recognized these issues in our post last year, and identified some strategies and solutions to build more equitable and connected communities. In fact, Verge was founded with this important mission in mind.
In 2020, Verge Internet set out to do what its founders, Jonathan Rhodes and Christopher Wolff, have always sought to do: improve the lives of people in communities around them. They knew that too many people in New Orleans, and in communities across the country, did not have access to reliable, affordable connectivity. At the time, the vast majority of people in White communities had access to high speed internet, so remote school, work and information were no problem. On the other hand, there were communities of color where more than 50% of residents lacked access. Putting the historic housing redline maps next to current digital equity maps in New Orleans paints a startling picture of this ongoing disparity in our communities.
But Rhodes and Wollf saw that the problem was not just in their town. Across America, racism in housing policy and community development has continued to impact equity in connectivity. This awareness was frustrating to Rhodes and Wolff because they knew the technology and solutions currently existed to bring high speed broadband to those in need. Verge was born to disrupt the status quo by providing affordable Internet for All and supporting technology for the coming Internet of Everything.
So, who is it that perpetuates from the racist policies of the past? Who stands to gain from the digital divide. As usual, we need to look at those who stand to lose out on some position of power and profit from a change in the status quo.
In terms of redlining, it was the banks that sought to protect their interests by keeping black families out of the housing market. Similarly, today it is incumbent cable companies that seek to protect their dying industry. Not only have incumbent companies failed to build out broadband infrastructure in communities of color, they have also sought to prevent other companies from doing so. This dual track of disinvestment and discouraging competition has so far allowed incumbents to protect their market dominance, although at the expense of our communities.
The Community Tech Network has some great commentary and studies on the causes and results of these decades of discrimination and disinvestment. It seems from the data, and in our communities, the incumbents seek to perpetuate segregation over Smart Cities. This makes incumbents dinosaurs, doing what they can to hold off the disrupters.
Verge is one of those startup competitors seeking to challenge the status quo with better technology, better service and more affordable prices for the communities that need it most. But there is a playbook the incumbent companies use to kill the competition. As we’ll discuss in more detail in our next post, Cox Communications seems to go out of its way to protect its dominance in markets across America.
In 2020, Rhodes and Wolff began designing what would become the first of its kind innovations in Smart City planning. By designing next generation networks, and leveraging cutting edge smart city technologies, Rhodes and Wolff have developed what has become the gold standard in Smart City planning.
However, there’s a dramatic twist. Before these innovations could take shape, Rhodes and Wolff would be challenged by some of the most powerful interests in the market—the incumbent cable providers and regulatory politicians. Falsely accused by these powerful interests, and ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing, Rhodes and Wolff are proud to have pushed the envelope for innovation and positive change. In the next part of this series, we’ll offer commentary on how Cox Communications and the New Orleans City Council worked together to kill competition and preserve the status quo. These lessons learned will help disrupters find a path forward in working with cities in the future. Stay tuned and join our team!
Verge Internet, a startup networking and technology company, is passionate about bringing the Internet to All and serves as a thought leader and partner in the Internet of Everything. Our Founders, Jonathan Rhodes and Christopher Wolff have decades of leadership in networking, innovation and business development. Follow their commentary here and on social media.